Whether appreciated as the national bird or simply a magnificent bird of prey, the annual return of the bald eagles continues to attract local Quad-City residents and tourists.
Aside from open water and food sources, weather is the largest factor in determining eagles’ turnout. They generally don't congregate until other river areas freeze over. But with the recent cold weather, they've been out in force along the Mississippi River in the Quad-City area.
“Anybody who comes to the Mississippi River in the winter should be able to view a bald eagle,” said Quad-City Audubon Society board member Jody Millar.
The eagle population is symbolic of a healthy environment—healthy eagles mean there are healthy fish and clean water, Millar said.
Bald eagles mate for life, adding to their nests every year. Bob Motz, a retired teacher who leads eagle-spotting tours, recalled a 12-foot tall nest occupied for 36 years. He said the residing eagles were likely at least 41 years old.
According to Gearhart, eagles also can be lazy. They want to get their prey as easily as possible, and may fight viciously, stealing fish from one another.
LeClaire offers a prime spot to view bald eagles.
“Lock & Dam 14 is probably the best place in the United States to see and photograph bald eagles,” said wildlife photographer Burt Gearhart. “Alaska has more, but that’s an awfully long plane ride.”
Quad-City Times Photographer Kevin Schmidt has traveled the country to get the right shot, but said trekking long distances isn’t required to see stunning views of the majestic bird.
“Sometimes people don’t realize just what's out here along the river — literally in your backyard,” Schmidt said.
“There’s a group of us that go to Lock & Dam 14 every day,” Gearhart said. “We call it ‘the office’.”
Other good spots are Lock & Dam 13 in Fulton, Lock & Dam 15 in Rock Island, Schwiebert Riverfront Park and Sunset Marina in Rock Island, the Davenport riverfront, Illiniwek Forest Preserve in Hampton, Illinois. For the housebound, Arconic operates an online Eagle Cam so people can watch the eagles that nest on the Arconic facility property in Riverdale.
When taking photos of bald eagles, one must be cognizant of the wind direction, Gearhart said.
The Mississippi runs east to west — as opposed to north to south — in several spots. Eagles fish into the wind, so at Lock & Dam 14, you’ll get better photos of forward-facing eagles with the wind at your back, Gearhart said.
Conversely, if the wind is coming from the Illinois side of the river, the eagles will end up fishing facing east — away from the dock. “It’s not only cold, but they’ll fish facing away from you,” Gearhart said.